Discover Waitomo’s eerie subterranean world of caverns and grottoes, then emerge to explore craggy coastlines, peaceful pastures and gorgeous gardens.
Waitomo’s famous limestone cave system was formed by millions of years of land movement, rain, and river erosion, resulting in a dazzling display of nature’s artwork. Throughout the 50km labyrinth, caverns and grottoes are decorated with intricate sculptures that hang suspended from the ceiling, or grow from the cave floor. The scene is softly illuminated by millions of native New Zealand glowworms – tiny, twinkling creatures that turn ceilings and walls into mesmerising, star-filled nightscapes.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co
In many cases, underground streams and rivers allow visitors to view the wonders from boats or inflatable tubes that glide silently through meandering passages. A guided trip through any of the caves will explain how the spectacular stalactites and stalagmites developed over hundreds of millennia, and guides often intertwine natural history with legends of this historic district.
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
Perhaps the best-known subterranean attractions are the Waitomo Glowworm Caves with their grand Cathedral cavern and famous Glowworm Grotto. The access point to these caves is the striking new Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre, which has already won awards for its innovative architecture. With a gallery, exhibition space, theatre, gift shop, restaurant and café, the Centre is set to become an attraction in itself.
Aranui Cave, Discover Waitomo
The mystical Ruakuri (“den of dogs”) Cave has been reopened after an 18-year closure and now hosts the country’s longest guided underground walking tour. The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. – with whom you can float along underground rivers in a truck inner-tube – also operates tours through this cave. Aranui Cave is the smallest and most delicate of Waitomo’s three main caves. It’s home to a colony of cave wetas (large, horned insects) and a stunning collection of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and decorative formations.
There are subterranean adventures to suit all ages and abilities. For something sedate, how about walking over suspended walkways where the only sounds are the echoes of hidden waterfalls? If you’re not afraid of the dark or confined spaces, then blackwater rafting – invented in Waitomo – could be for you. Wetsuits are provided to keep you warm and a hot shower makes for a welcome end to your underground adventure. You can also abseil into deep caverns and undertake other adrenalin-inducing underground activities. Several tour companies offer the whole adventure package.
Kiwi Cave Rafting
Kiwi Cave Rafting has a great deal that starts with a 27-metre abseil into a huge chasm and finishes with a challenging rock climb to the surface. In between, your caving adventure includes breath-taking glowworm displays and blackwater rafting. The company also offers backpacker-style accommodation in a cosy farmhouse. Caveworld’s popular Footwhistle Glow Worm Tour takes you through a spectacular cave system with millions of glowworms, stunning limestone formations, and even ancient moa bones.
Waitomo Adventures also provides caving adventures, but whichever company you choose you’re sure to have a memorable trip into the middle of the earth, through a treasure that’s been 30 million years in the making. On your way to or from Waitomo, take a scenic break and visit Roselands Restaurant Farm & Garden for a bite to eat, stroll around the landscaped grounds and say hi to their friendly farm animals.
The caves are the focus of the King Country sub-region, which also offers plenty to do above the ground. The vivid green land offers a placid escape where you can trek through fascinating limestone-studded hills, explore tunnels and enjoy 360-degree views of the sweeping valleys. Walks through beautiful native bush lead to natural wonders such as the plunging Marokopa Falls, or the astonishing 17m-long two-tiered limestone arch known as Mangapohue Natural Bridge.
At Ruakuri Scenic Reserve, you’ll find a natural tunnel set against a backdrop of native bush and at Kāwhia you can dig your own hot pool in the black sand at Ocean Beach. The remains of the ancestral Tainui waka (canoe) are buried on the local marae at Kāwhia, and the village remains a stronghold of Māori history. Fish & chips from the Rusty Snapper is a must!
Greater Waikato’s above-ground landscape also offers plenty of variety. The main city is Hamilton, just ninety minutes’ drive from Auckland, and on the main trunk railway. The Waikato River, the country’s longest waterway, slides through the heart of the city and excellent walking and cycle-ways are found along its banks. Waterborne activities such as rowing, kayaking, jet boating, scenic boat tours and water-skiing are popular pursuits on this river and on other rivers, lakes and dams in the region.
The Waikato River curves alongside the city’s special treasure, the magnificent Hamilton Gardens. This 58ha public garden has a world-class reputation, with its pavilions, lakes, terrace café and feature gardens encompassing everything from herbs to Italian Renaissance and recently added Tudor themes. The gardens attract more than 1.3 million visitors a year. Hamilton Zoo, with its rare Sumatran tigers and white rhinos, is another visitor favourite. Just on the outskirts of the city you can step into the peaceful world of the award-winning 40ha Zealong Tea plantation – there you can taste the world’s purest tea, backed by the certifications to prove it. Visit for a 2 hour tour to see how tea is made, experience a traditional tea ceremony, pose in tea picking garb, and enjoy a delicious high tea with home made tea-infused treats.
Signature high tea, Zealong Tea House
Outside Hamilton there are many other attractions and activities. Forty-five minutes west of Hamilton is Raglan, famous for its left-hand surf break that is ranked in the world’s top 20. The town buzzes with funky cafes, restaurants and galleries. There are plenty of outdoor activities, including two surf schools, stand-up paddleboarding, kayak hire, and Raglan Rock – rock climbing and caving experiences. Or for a free thrill, join the locals at high tide and jump off the Raglan estuary bridge. Make sure you grab a cup of Raglan Roast coffee before embarking on your adventures, guaranteed to give you an energy boost!
Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan
Hiking up Mt Karioi will reward you with some amazing views, or if the westerly wind is howling, duck into the shelter of the Te Toto Gorge Track and scramble down the steep, forested sides to the open grassy areas on the cliff tops. Bridal Veil Falls are just off the unsealed country road that links Raglan and Kawhia, worth the twenty-minute walk.
There are also hot springs at Waingaro, west of Ngāruawāhia, as well as at Matamata and historic Te Aroha. In Tirau and Cambridge you’ll find shops full of antiques and crafts. Te Awamutu has gorgeous roses and Otorohanga’s famous kiwi house and bird sanctuary are a delight. Otorohanga is also the country’s Kiwiana capital, celebrating everything from pavlovas to buzzy bee toys. Just 25 minutes drive from Te Awamutu is one of the region's conservation treasures; Sanctuary Mountain, which is the largest pest-protected area in the world and home to diverse plant and birdlife.
Kaka, Sanctuary Mountain
The lush Waikato pastures make it the country’s dairy capital, and it’s home to some of our greatest racehorses. You can watch cheese-making, plus sample and buy cheese near Matamata, or tour a horse stud at Cambridge. You’ll also find horse-trekking adventures, hot-air ballooning, bushwalking, mountain-biking, wine-tasting and golf.
EAT & SLEEP
The region has accommodation to suit every pocket and preference. Fancy staying somewhere unique? Perhaps you’d like to sleep in a plane, a train, a boat – or an authentic hobbit-style earth house? Take your pick. Waikato has everything from backpacker hostels, motel units and campgrounds to the historic Waitomo Caves Hotel, eco retreats such as Solscape in Raglan, homestays and charming B&Bs. For something with a true Middle Earth flavour, try ‘glamping’ at Underhill, an earth house that any hobbit would be proud of, only 10 minutes from Hamilton.
For great food, head to the southern end of Victoria Street in Hamilton where its café culture thrives – Two Birds Eatery and Scott’s Epicurean are local favourites, or check out the bustling weekend Farmer’s Markets in Claudelands, Gordonton, and Cambridge. Raglan will happily wine and dine you at The Shack or newly opened Wallis Bistro, both weekend visitor hot-spots.
Good George Brewery